Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

CenturyLink generously supports MinnPost's Education coverage. Learn why.

Why the English Learner label is troublesome for many Minnesota parents — and what schools are trying to do about it

Song Vaj
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Song Vaj's experience with the identification and assessment process for English Learner services isn’t unique.

When Song Vaj enrolled her children at the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Hmong International Academy in 2014, she jokingly told those in registration that if they had a Hmong version of the English as a Second Language (ESL) program, she’d sign her children up “in a heartbeat.”

Despite being fluent in Hmong herself, Vaj says her kids — in kindergarten, fourth grade and sixth grade, at the time — only spoke English, as that was the predominant language spoken in their home. That’s what she wrote on the home language survey she was asked to fill out when enrolling her kids in the district, and she assumed her word was enough to establish the kids were fluent in English.  

Towards the end of the school year, however, she received a letter from the district informing her that her fourth-grader had taken the English proficiency test, which measures how well a student can read, write, speak and listen in English. Her daughter’s composite score was high enough that she had not been designated to receive English Learner (EL) services, such as regular access to an ESL teacher who provides targeted language instruction. 

The news caught Vaj by surprise. No one had ever given her a heads up that her daughter had even been flagged as a potential English Learner. “I was upset that they assumed it,” she said. “It makes me feel like they’re not valuing my information that I had wrote down. If the parents have listed that the child does not speak the native language at all — speak or understand — then before they even do an assessment, they need to talk to the parent first.”

Vaj has since moved her kids to a Hmong charter school in St. Paul. But she’s not alone in having expressed frustration with English language services in Minnesota. Even as educators struggle to ensure students who need such services don't go unnoticed, parents are voicing their own concerns about the process many schools use to identify and assess potential EL students.

The placement process

The paperwork involved in identifying and assessing students for English language services starts with a three-question, state-mandated home language survey with that parents fill out upon enrollment. If any language other than English is listed in any response, that student is flagged as a potential EL student.

“The issue arises with second-generation families: Their students are born in the U.S. They actually don’t speak their native language, but a family will list it on the home language survey because the question is written such that ‘Is another language spoken in the home?’ said Aara Johnson, a policy fellow with the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership. “A parent will say, ‘Sure, I speak Hmong to my kids.’”

Kids identifed as potential EL students are then given a test to measure their English language proficiency. If they score below a certain threshold, they qualify for EL services and can be enrolled — as long as a parent is notified by letter within 30 days. (Parents have a legal right to opt-out of EL services for their child.)

In many cases, parents are looped in before any decisions are made about placement into EL services. But as the EL student population continues to grow — both in numbers and in diversity — things don’t always go as planned.

Muhidin Warfa, director of the Minneapolis district’s multilingual department, says that sometimes the chain of communication breaks down and parents find out their kid was given an English proficiency test without them knowing about it. “There’s a few cases where the system would drop the ball,” he said. “There’s been, in particular, some students who are placed without assessment,” he said, though he noted that it only happened a couple of times last year when a lines of communication got crossed between the district, parents and a student. In these instances, he adds, he and his colleagues were able to connect with a parent before the students actually received any EL services. 

Complicating matters for school officials is the negative perceptions that some families have of the EL label — that needing EL services implies a child isn’t as smart at their non-EL peers, or even that a child in EL services is somehow less American. For students, the urge to fit in is so great that they themselves often pressure their parents to keep them out of EL services.

“The frustration that I have seen with the community — especially with second-generation, third-generation — a lot of young parents [are telling] us, ‘My kid is as American as anyone else. There are other kids who may not have the academic proficiency in English as much, and you don’t test them,’” Warfa said.

Combating misconceptions

Warfa says that parents often ask him why the Minneapolis Public Schools doesn’t just give everyone the English proficiency test upon enrollment, so that those who may be bilingual don’t feel singled out.

The reason, says Martha Swanson, a coordinator in the district's new families center, is because MPS simply doesn’t have the resources to go straight to testing every single student. And while the EL label has been saddled with some negative misperceptions over the years, she points out that district's process is guided by a law that’s grounded in a civil rights case.

“The reason for identification is the law,” she said. “We need to know if they qualify to get them the access they need.”

Swanson says parents are supposed to be given the opportunity to weigh in at two distinct points: They can decline the English proficiency test for their child; or they can allow them to take the test but still opt-out of the EL services themselves.

There’s a ton of information sharing at the front end — both in-person and by mail — she adds, on what EL services actually entail. In the Minneapolis district, EL students are no longer pulled-out of their regular classes for instruction, as many families assume. Rather, EL teachers serve as co-teachers inside the regular classroom and lower-level ELs are pulled out for English tutorials while their peers are doing independent work.

“There’s also the perception that the district is making money off these EL services,” that creates an incentive for the district to identify more kids as needing EL services, Warfa said. “That’s not the case. We get about $4 million from state … and use like $20 million for EL services.”

Today, the district has almost 200 EL teachers, compared to less than 80 four years ago, he said. It’s an example of an investment — along with professional development for teachers on framing a student’s native language as an asset, rather than a deficit — that has pushed the cost of supporting EL students above any extra state dollars the district receives for ELs.

Insight from Faribault

Knowing that preconceived notions about EL services can erode parents’ trust in schools before their kids even walk in the door, some districts are taking futher steps to avoid misunderstandings. 

Sambath Ouk, the EL coordinator at Faribault Public Schools, uses the home language survey as a starting point, but he also has face-to-face conversations with new families so he has a deeper sense of how they identify with the various languages they and their children speak. 

As the sole EL coordinator in his district, Ouk registered and assessed 140 students this past school year. Before he had any student take the English proficiency test, however, he scheduled an in-person meeting with the family to talk with them about the purpose of the test, what EL services actually entail, and what rights they have to defuse services.

“It took me a couple hours per family, per student,” he said. “But it’s something that’s necessary to do because you want families to have buy-in in the program.”

Ouk believes that communicating any of that information by letter — after a student has already been assessed — can invite misunderstanding. For a lot of the families he serves, even when materials are translated into their native language, it’s still not fully accessible. “A lot of our families don’t read in their native language,” he explained.

“I think, in terms of the registration piece, we don’t want the kid to feel labeled or profiled. It’s never any intent of an EL program to do any of that,” he said, adding anything happening along these lines is moreso a sign of a bad system that’s been put in place. “We want the parents to hear what EL programming can do to help their child …. If the parents just one day come to a parent-teacher conference two months into the school year [and find out their child was enrolled in EL services], they’re going to ask why they weren’t asked about this decision. And it creates negative stereotypes of EL.”

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

About the Author:

Comments (1)


Clearly these bureaucrats who falsely label English-proficient immigrant and ethnic students as ELL do not understand the meaning of biculturalism or multiculturism. Basically, most teachers can figure out language proficiency for both immigrant and U.S.-born students for themselves, and then refer the students to ELL or Developmental English programs as needed. But this would threaten the jobs of bureaucrats and coordinators and consultants who feed of the public education system.